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UND MEN'S BASKETBALL: Sioux play for pride

South Dakota was the preseason pick to win the North Central Conference men's basketball title. However, the big, physical Coyotes surprisingly have lost their last three games and won't win the league title.

South Dakota was the preseason pick to win the North Central Conference men's basketball title. However, the big, physical Coyotes surprisingly have lost their last three games and won't win the league title.

UND was picked to finish fifth. The Sioux - with only one NCC win this season - won't finish that high, either. With three regular-season games remaining, a sixth-place finish is UND's best hope.

Neither the Sioux or South Dakota met their preseason expectations, but both want to finish strong in the final season of NCC play. UND plays at South Dakota on Thursday, a game the Coyotes (4-4 NCC, 19-4 overall) need to win if they want home-court advantage in the first round of the NCC playoffs.

UND is coming off a rough week. The Sioux were overwhelmed at Augustana last Thursday before losing by eight points at Minnesota-Duluth - the sixth-place team in the NCC.

"I don't care about the score. I just want our guys to compete and play with pride for all of those guys who played before us," said UND coach Brian Jones, whose team is 1-8 in the league and 12-12 overall. "We want to play well and get better."

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UND was projected to be better this season, considering it returned a handful of athletic players who made an impression last year, Jones' first as the Sioux coach.

But the NCC - as it turns out - is as strong as it's been in recent years. Five of the seven teams have .500 records or better in league play.

"We could get four teams in the (Division II) playoffs," Jones said. "And you'd like the league to finish that way."

Six of the seven NCC teams have had their share of close games in league play. That's no surprise either, considering a handful of possessions usually determine the outcome of NCC games.

UND, however, has the worst scoring differential in the NCC. The Sioux have been outscored by an average of 13.5 points in league games. Only one other team has a negative points differential ranking. Minnesota-Duluth, 2-7 in the league, has been outscored by an average of 6.3 points in the NCC.

Minnesota State-Mankato (9-1, 20-5) has earned at least a share of the regular-season NCC title. Augustana (6-3, 18-6) is the only team that can catch the Mavericks. And the two teams meet Thursday in Mankato.

The Sioux can catch only Duluth. More important, they hope to gain momentum for the NCC postseason tournament.

"We want to play with confidence and energy," Jones said.

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Reach Nelson at 780-1128, (800) 477-6572 ext. 268 or wnelson@gfherald.com .

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